Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Paradoxes of Evil

The Dish pointed me to this thought-provoking quote from James Dawes, the author of Evil Men, a collection of interviews with war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War , about the paradoxes inherent in studying evil:
Talking about evil is hard. It involves at least two paradoxes. Here’s the first. On the one hand, to denounce evil is an ethical act. It is to affirm our deepest values and to commit ourselves to preventing acts that dehumanize others. On the other hand, to denounce evil can be an unethical act. It is a way of demonizing; it is, precisely, to dehumanize another. Here’s the second paradox: On the one hand, we need to the concept of evil to philosophically and ethically distinguish acts that shock our consciences, acts that are not adequately encompassed by words like bad, wicked, or wrong. The concept of evil clarifies. On the other hand, the concept of evil confuses, prevents thinking. We imagine evil is other than human, beyond understanding, almost mystical. This lets us off the hook, lets us deny our own capacity for evil, and stops us from analyzing the very human, very common causes of it.
This is very well stated. I remember thinking along these lines when I read Richard Lourie's The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin (read the first chapter here) and was confounded by what I felt was a surprisingly flat attempts to detail the human life of such a monster. The book itself is excellent when dealing with the ying/yang relationship between Stalin and Trotsky, but now I recognize that the novel's weakness probably lies in how to addressing the Dawes' paradoxes while writing a first person perspective of Stalin's upbringing childhood. Fascinating stuff.

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